We met the California rockers on their UK tour, to talk the stunning reinvention at the heart of ‘Proper Dose’
Juvenile, simplistic and something to grow out of – few genres have an image quite as sullied as pop-punk’s. The softened, Americanised take on punk-rock is plagued by a less-than-savoury reputation – something The Story So Far know better than most.
The one-time poster boys for the pop-punk scene’s turn-of-the-decade resurgence, the five-piece’s fired-up take on the genre captured the hearts of thousands, and drew them the scorn of thousands more. Seen as both essential and egregious, depending on who you’d ask, their love-it-or-hate-it approach reaped dividends amongst a scene of kids that thrived on their outcast image.
‘Proper Dose’, The Story So Far’s latest album’, is a heel-turn. Taking that punk-rock background and fusing it with sonics more akin to a Britpop band (Oasis get several nods, both sonically and in frontman Parker Cannon’s present day on-stage persona), it’s the most accomplished record the Californian group have ever put to tape; evidence that pop-punk can grow up, just like any other genre.
In the midst of a huge UK tour, NME sat down with Parker, guitarist Kevin Geyer and drummer Ryan Torf, to talk through how drug abuse and disinterest in their scene led to the reinvention of ‘Proper Dose’.
So, let’s start with the new record. From what I gather, it almost didn’t happen? It sounds like you were pretty burnt out?
Parker: “Yeah, we had just been on a really intense touring schedule, from like 2012 through to 2016. We were just pretty burnt out on playing the same songs all the time. We weren’t too creative – we didn’t really have time for it. We weren’t jamming as much, or writing as much. It came back around – when we had to do another record, we were like, ‘How’s it gonna work? How’s it gonna sound? What do we even like?’”
Ryan: “We just hit this point where everybody had life things going on; we all hit our mid-twenties. It’s this age where we’d been touring since 2012, and you’d come home and the things around you are changing and growing, and you’re just popping back-and-forth. It leads to these weird things, and everyone has to deal with them differently – it makes it hard to do music, at times.”
The first three records were so quick – there was a constant momentum.
Parker: “Yeah, there was definitely the energy there for it, for me – especially lyrically. Just being in that place in my life of being young and… rash. I had the momentum for it, you could say, and I just got to a point where that wasn’t my life anymore. I didn’t feel that way about certain things, and nothing resonated as hard as it did when we first started out. “
Those lyrics were both integral to The Story So Far’s success, and almost part of their downfall. Acidic lash-outs at ex-girlfriends and former lovers, they caught the attentions and captured the moods of a thousand young, worked-up teenagers, both male and female. It didn’t take long, though, for those lyrics to be held up as problematic, and pinned with the same allegations of sexism and slut shaming that plagued much of the mid-00s emo scene. When a widely-publicised incident involving Parker kicking a selfie-taking fan off stage occurred (only for the girl herself to reject the severity of the allegations), it was played up as indicative of the frontman’s negative view towards women in general.
It’s little surprise, then, that he feels disconnected from the younger man who wrote those lyrics. “I don’t want to look back on my other stuff and frown,” Parker says today. “I just want to look ahead and be able to smile. These songs can last forever and be… good,” he trails off.
When did that view towards your old music change?
Parker: “We were able to come around on music, in a way. We started listening more instead of just worrying about stupid bullshit like touring, or what have you.“
For a while, there was this huge swell of interest in pop-punk again. You were so contained within that scene.
Parker: “Yeah, it was a resurgence, I would say. “
Kevin: “That’s something we tried to shed throughout out career, too – we don’t identify as ‘pop punk’. We are who we are.”
Parker: “We are what we listen to, when we’re touring or whatever. Growing up, especially listening to a band like Title Fight and seeing them evolve – I’ve gotta give them a lot of credit for how we went about things.“
How did you end up in that world? You came from a more hardcore background.
Kevin: “When we started, we were super young. Our first jam ever, Ryan was playing on fuckin’ buckets in my parents’ garage. Our original guitarist, Kevin Ambrose, his brother drummed in Set Your Goals. They were popping off at the time.
Ryan: “And that was that pop-punk, but heavily influenced by hardcore.
Parker: That was the first time we’d heard that, or thought that was possible, or people would fuck with that at all. Being around them was a huge introduction into shows like that; rowdier shows.”
Kevin: “It was an eye-opening experience. Mikey [Ambrose], the drummer of Set Your Goals, would put a bunch of shit on my iPod, and I’d never know what it is. It’d be some random hardcore band, or something.”
Parker: “It definitely exploded from there, in terms of finding bands, or being addicted to going to shows. It’s undeniable – there fever was there. And from that, rose this band. It just really snowballed, man, honestly. We had no illusions of grandeur, at first – we were just jamming and having hella fun. That’s how we got into that whole scene.”
When did you realise that wasn’t the space you wanted to occupy anymore?
Parker: “Once I’d been touring a lot, and partied a lot, and fucking went through it with multiple different relationships… None of them worked out [laughs], so I was like, ‘Well, this probably isn’t the formula for what’s gonna happen or be good.’ Also, it was getting harder to go from playing these crazy shows on tour every night and having so much fun, and then going back home, chilling out and being away from it – it was going from a real high to a real low right away. So I was trying to find some sort of balance in between, and it didn’t work out. It led to me doing some… other stuff, which was not conducive to being in a band.”
As a means of dealing with that relentless up-down lifestyle, Parker turned to tranquilisers. Sinking into a world of Xanax and benzo abuse, he numbed the world around him; a medicated means of slowing down that hectic pace. It was a lifestyle that only exacerbated his situation – sending Parker further away from reality led to an even greater disconnect. The man once renowned for his seeming disinterest and reclusive personality became more distant still.
When the time came for a follow-up, he was trying to kick the habit. Numbed, he struggled to connect to his emotions – for a band known for their heavily emotive lyrical content, this was a problem. “It wasn’t good for writing, or jamming,” Parker recalls, “but then I realised, ‘Well, maybe I can write about this.’”
Already struggling with what he wanted to write about, that drug abuse became a central theme of ‘Proper Dose’ as it took place. “Barely focused anymore / The haze is all that I can see,” he sings on the explosive opener; “My appropriate opiate has me out of it / I can’t believe you’re still upset, get over it,” goes ‘Out Of It’, a to-the-point back-and-forth between his sober and medicated selves. It’s a lyrical sensibility that’s finally seen Parker move his anger away from ex-girlfriends and towards the medication that ensnared him.
Was writing about it an important part of you getting past that drug use?
Parker: “For sure. This is always therapy – it’s always been some sort of therapy for any of us, from whatever it is that you’re going through. Anything at all.”
Musically, the sound has expanded a lot, too. Where did you start?
Ryan: We went in with the expectation that we were gonna try whatever, and not worry if it was going to work out. We had so much time to mess around and grow. Pure Noise [Records] were so good and supportive with that – and it made all the difference for this record. We didn’t feel constricted by what we could try. We ended up with songs that were your core identity from the past, and also things that we’d never tried before.”
Kevin: “With our first three records, it felt hard to grow in an honest way, on a deadline. It forces you to just do what needs to be done. But with this one, we didn’t really have a set deadline. We just wanted to keep working on it. Having those few years to explore… there’s a lot of fuckin’ music in the world! We were all pretty stagnant on ‘the scene’ – none of us were listening to this type of band. For me, it was more like going back to what I listened to early on – Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and stuff. A lot of classic music – since our self-titled record in 2015, to now, that’s kinda been the…”
Parker: “The vibe.”
Most notably, Parker found himself stumbling across Oasis, a band that had largely passed him by. The influence the Gallagher brothers had on ‘Proper Dose’ is palpable. From the newly expansive guitar tones – which make The Story So Far of 2018 sound like a Britpop band raised under Cali sun, rather than drab Manchester skies – to Parker’s more refined vocal, which finds him morphing his bark into a more melodic, Gallagher-esque croon. It’s a record that expands the sonic horizons not just of The Story So Far, but the pop-punk scene at large. It’s proof that there’s life outside of those more youthful, yelping creations.
Is it your hope – to get out of ‘the scene’?
Parker: “I don’t wanna throw shade on the scene in general. That’s what made us who we are, and it was so much fun. We just know that the people who are listening to this band, or have been – they’re growing up too. It’s only right to do as such, and make something that can be timeless, rather than a moment in time.”
It sounds like you’ve got a more positive look on things, at the moment.
Parker: “It feels good to be playing again, and playing live especially. These songs, especially live, just sound so good.”
Kevin: “Just being on tour, too – this time around in Europe, it’s the first time we’ve been here that I’ve really appreciated everything. We were walking everywhere, and taking it in. I feel like we were all a little more excited to be there, than we were in the past. We just feel a little more grown up and appreciative of the whole situation we’re in.”
Parker: “We’ve just got some more scope, dude.”
The Story So Far’s new album ‘Proper Dose’ is out now via Pure Noise Records.